Whenever you hear people romanticizing the good old days of pioneering life on the Prairies, the nostalgia is almost always tied to the community spirit.
By most measures, the early settlers lived a miserable existence. But they were all in it together and all working towards the same end, firstly to survive and then to thrive.
Most recognized they couldn’t go it alone. The best way for individuals to succeed was by working together to build a successful society. Meeting their personal self-interest was inherently tied to the communal interest.
Collective efforts to build schools, places to worship, hospitals and local governments eventually evolved into small-C capitalism such as the co-operative grain companies that at their peak handled 83 per cent of the Prairie grain crop.
Even today, communities that have survived the test of time almost invariably rely on a highly creative core of committed locals who find innovative ways to overcome the financial and logistical challenges.
The global story emerging from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic suggests that a similar brand of community spirit and creativity is now needed on the world stage. Farmers, descendants of those early pioneers, have a direct stake in the outcome.
Philip Alston, the exiting United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, issued a blistering rebuke of global efforts to eradicate poverty this month.
He said in a statement that the so-called progress that has been made in recent times is largely due to the fact that the World Bank’s poverty line currently of US$1.90 per day is “explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity.”
“This in turn facilitates greatly exaggerated claims about the impending eradication of extreme poverty and downplays the parlous state of impoverishment in which billions of people still subsist,” Alston writes.
Despite the self-congratulatory rhetoric, “the reality is that billions face few opportunities, countless indignities, unnecessary hunger, and preventable death, and remain too poor to enjoy basic human rights.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the flaws in that narrative as it threatens to push more than 70 million people into extreme poverty and hundreds of millions more into unemployment and poverty. Alston says more than 250 million people are at risk of facing acute hunger.
He predicts the pandemic will exacerbate the growing gap between rich and poor because the poor lack the ability to avoid both the health and economic fallout.
“The pithy advice to ‘stay home, socially distance, wash hands, and see a doctor in case of fever’ highlights the plight of the vast numbers who can do none of these things,” he said. “They have no home in which to shelter, no food stockpiles, live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, and have no access to clean water or affordable medical care. Far from being the ‘great leveller,’ COVID-19 is a pandemic of poverty, exposing the parlous state of social safety nets for those on lower incomes or in poverty around the world.
“When combined with the next generation of post-COVID-19 austerity policies, the dramatic transfer of economic and political power to the wealthy elites that has characterized the past 40 years will accelerate, at which point the extent and depth of global poverty will be even more politically unsustainable and explosive.”
This blunt and discouraging assessment of our global humanitarian and development efforts is particularly ominous for Canada, which is highly dependent on exports for its economic growth. It is particularly concerning for farmers who export most of what they grow.
Prairie farmers appear to be inching towards a bumper crop. If the current patterns continue, the acres lost to heavy rains in some parts of the Prairies will be more than offset by yields on the acres that do get harvested.
Global grain stocks are already at market depressing levels and market demand is likely to shrink due to the economic effects of the pandemic. The UN FAO’s latest forecast of world cereal stocks-to-use ratio for cereals is at a 20-year high of 33 per cent.
Given its $300-billion deficit, it will be tempting for the Canadian government to reduce commitments to global development in the interests of getting its own financial house in order. Because of their history, and because of their dependence on the world economy, farmers know better than anyone the folly of that.
Now is not the time to retrench. What the world community needs now is some of the same spirit that went into a good old-fashioned barn raising.